Disaster Preparedness for Older Adults
She spent two days alone in her house in water up to her neck, moving from room to room, holding on to anything that would help her stay above water, not knowing if she would survive.
For sixty years Alice (not her real name) had lived happily in that quaint three-bedroom house snuggled toward the back of her yard, far away from the noisy street and most of her neighbors. She had weathered many storms in that house; so, when word came that Dorian was coming, she did what she always did in preparation for a hurricane: she ensured she had a three-day supply of water and easy-to-prepare canned food; she activated her shutters; and she checked that her lamps and radio had fresh batteries.
But never had Alice experienced winds and rising waters of the magnitude Dorian brought; it was as if the sea, in open rebellion against the command God had given it at creation, determined to reclaim the land. For two days the storm battered the eastern end of Grand Bahama with winds in excess of 185 mph.
On the first day, the waters covered the furnishings in Alice’s house.
On the second day, she could not stand upright in the water. She held on to anything for dear life, literally trying to keep her head above the water.
On the third day, the water began to recede, but not Alice’s nightmare. The water was in everything in the house, and everything in the house—the gasoline from the lawn mower and the many tins of paint—was in the water. As night gave way to daylight and the water retreated to the sea, Alice realized it was taking some of her with it.
She could not make her way to safety or call for help: the water was still too high for her to wade through and the telephones—landline and cell—were down. So she waited, not knowing if anyone would come.
At the “all clear” Good Samaritans on Jet Skis made their way through the neighborhood trying to rescue people who were stranded in their homes. Alice didn’t know this, but she waited in the water and prayed. A young man in her neighborhood remembered that an old lady lived in a house at the back of the yard down the road. He told this to the men on the Jet Skis and they drove to the house to find Alice still in the water. She was alive but the salty, churning waters had left her with burns to her legs, her thighs, her buttocks, her stomach, her arms.
The men took her to the nearest clinic and, with the help of international relief workers, she was evacuated to a hospital in the capital, where she was able to reach her family and receive burn treatment.
Hurricane Dorian struck two islands of The Bahamas—Abaco and Grand Bahama—from September 1 to 3, 2019 and left behind many harrowing tales like Alice’s. It also reminded us of the importance to observe the guidelines for disaster preparedness, especially with respect to the most vulnerable among us—older adults and children. Alice, an older woman, was alone during hurricane Dorian and, sadly, she was not the only one. Many calls were heard over the airwaves from frantic relatives to rescue workers to help a parent, a grandparent, an uncle, an aunt who was trapped alone in their residence. This is concerning because, according to the guidelines of disaster preparedness, persons who are aging in place should not be left alone during a disaster. So what should these older persons do? They should become informed and be prepared.
The hurricane season will be active for another two months and winter will follow; so now may be an opportune time for you to review whether you are informed and prepared for a disaster. The aim is for you to have the tools to “take responsibility to protect your life” during a man-made emergency or natural disaster.
Disasters include man-made emergencies and acts of nature—tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms and snowstorms—all of which have affected our state at some time or another. Know what disasters could affect your area and prepare for disasters that are most likely to affect your area. This would “keep planning from seeming overwhelming.” The state of Pennsylvania has identified the ten possible emergencies to affect residents: #1 floods, #2 fires, #3 winter storms, #4 tropical storms, tornadoes and thunderstorms, #5 influenza (flu) pandemic, #6 hazardous material incidents, #7 earthquakes and landslides, #8 nuclear threats, #9 dam failures, and #10 terrorism.
Being informed also means understanding your risk level so that you can make wise decisions. The CDC explains that “Older adults are more vulnerable than younger adults during a disaster because they are more likely to have impaired physical mobility, diminished sensory awareness, chronic health conditions, or social and economic limitations that interfere with their ability to prepare for disasters and to respond and adapt during such events.”
Here are the important general guidelines for disaster preparedness for older adults:
- Become part of a support network of individuals to help you prepare for an emergency or disaster and to check in on you in an emergency or disaster. Your network can include family, neighbors, residents in your facility. For information on how to implement a personal support network, go here.
- Have your Disaster-Preparedness Kit ready year-round. FEMA and the American Red Cross offer excellent tips and checklists on what should be in your kit; check them out. If you have a pet or service animal, remember to include an emergency kit for your pet also. It might be especially helpful to you—saves time and energy—to keep a basic readiness kit in your car; it’s called a vehicle emergency kit.
- Make a personalized plan in conjunction with your network. Your plan should answer the following questions:
– where would I go in an emergency?
– what should I carry with me?
– how will I get there?
– who should I call for help?
– how will I transport my wheelchair or some other communication or assistive device?
You may find that your one plan requires you to:
- Plan for your medical care. Have your meds in one easy-to-reach place and be sure to have more than one week’s supply and be sure to take refrigerated medications and solutions. If you require dialysis, chemotherapy or physical therapy, talk with your medical provider beforehand about a back-up plan.
- Plan for an evacuation. You should be able to evacuate your house with essential supplies within as little as ten minutes; here’s how.
- Plan for temporary accommodation. If you are living at home, plan how and where you would live in the event you are unable to return to your home immediately after the disaster.
FEMA reminds us that “Being prepared can reduce fear, anxiety, and losses that accompany disasters.”
What steps have you taken to prepare yourself for a disaster or other emergency?
If you have a loved one in an assisted living facility or retirement community, do you know what plans they have in place to protect residents during a disaster?
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